Friday, November 25, 2011

Christmas Tree Harvest

I worked for several decades in the xmas tree business in Oregon. Most people don't know how the cut tree they decorate in their living room gets there, so here goes.

Oregon is the second or third largest supplier of trees during the holiday season behind Michigan or Washington. Most of the trees are grown in the rainy third of the state west of the cascades. The most popular species are douglas fir, scotch pine and noble firs with some spruce. I dealt mostly with douglas fir. When I did this I was a contractor who accomplished whatever needed to be done with the growers' trees, whether they were huge companies moving millions of them or hobby farmers with a few thousand. I did it all, from planting to basal pruning to shearing to spraying to cutting to baling to shipping. We're seeing the tail end of harvest right now - most trees are processed in November and retail lots are springing up in parking areas as we speak. I brought trees over to Boise for seven or eight years and sold them out of a mall parking lot.

According to the species and how big you want to eventually harvest the crop, trees are planted equidistant in rows like corn. If you were planting in a field that was in rotation it was easy, just plant next to a stump. But a new field was more work. We would take wires with indicators pressed into them every 3 to 6 feet and lay out grids by walking along and spraying a dot of paint where the seedlings should be stuck in the ground. Nurseries grew them from seed and we'd usually buy bags of 200 that were a couple of years old. Depending on conditions you'd plant around 1000 a day.

Now most of the fields in Oregon, especially the major producers, are up in the hills away from towns. When I worked them I'd usually camp out for a few days so I didn't have to drive so much. To be honest it was a lot of fun, especially since I'm a backyard astronomer and I'd take my telescopes along with me and enjoy the dark rural skies. I worked with crews and by myself and probably at my zenith I was taking care of about a half a million trees a year.

After the seedlings are in the ground it's a constant battle against the undergrowth, especially blackberries. In moist environs you just about have to spray herbicides because thick undergrowth kills the lower branches. A side benefit from bare ground was collecting Indian artifacts that would eventually pop up from erosion. I have a whole bunch of scrapers and arrowheads, mostly obsidian from the Cascade volcanoes, that were best found after a light rain when they'd glisten in the sunlight.

Before a harvest year you'd walk down the rows and tag the type of quality you need to cut. The large operations usually employed lots of temporary Mexican laborers during the year to shear and prune the trees, and I'm not attempting to disparage their abilities, but inexperience usually meant a good year meant a 50% to 6o% number 1 grade cut.I prided myself on consistently producing around a 90% number 1 cut, but lesser quality could still be sold for a dollar or two less.

Harvest season is intense. It doesn't matter what the weather is or how you're feeling or anything else - schedules are strict and orders have to be filled. If a big rig shows up you better be waiting to fill it and send it on it's way. Trains ain't going to wait on half filled boxcars. Your buyers simply have to have their trees for the narrow xmas tree selling window. Cut trees are only landfill after that.
A word about collecting them from the fields. Sawyers had to show up consistently with good running equipment and lots of spare parts and cut around 1000 a day. Again the trees are usually well away from roads, way up in the hills, but have to be yarded somehow to where trucks or tractors with trailers are waiting. You absolutely cannot drag them through the muddy fields. Small growers hire laborers to carry them out but nowadays the big guys do this:

At those operations we'd carry a dozen or so stout ropes with a large metal ring on one end and a smaller ring on the other into the plantation. You'd lay two of them out a couple of feet apart and pile the trees in the middle, usually keeping it under a ton. You then bring the ends together putting the small rings through the big ones and tag the bundle with the number of trees. The chopper has a large metal hook wheret a ground man sticks the rings on the hook and away it goes. Helicopters rent for up to $500 an hour so the faster it's done the more valuable the operation is. The pilot in the above video is exceptionally efficient which is probably why he was taped. It's as hazardous as you might imagine. Men die every year. The aircraft hit trees and high tension wires; the speeding one ton bundles hit unwary field workers. One time my back was almost broken when I was reaching in a truck for ropes and the chopper's backwash slammed a door on me, just about cutting me in half.

The trees are dumped at a processing area and usually baled up to be able to send more in one shipment:

Packing a truck took experience and finesse and quality work meant much more money for growers. You need at least three guys inside and two out, carrying the trees over. Some operations had elevators to bring them up into the container. Decades ago the most common transport was open flatbeds with sides, but that left the trees vulnerable to be frozen and damaged going over the passes so now it's all refrigerator trucks. Getting as many jammed in is crucial so the most wiry guy was up top sticking them in the nooks and crannies. Fresh cut and very wet trees can weigh quite a bit. To do this kind of work you have to be extremely fit and tough, and willing to wind up at home completely soaked from rain and sweat, and also willing to get up before dawn every day without stopping for three to four solid weeks straight.
Even loggers thought long and hard about picking a bar fight with xmas tree workers.


Anonymous abi said...

That's a hell of a lot of work. I guess I knew that trees weren't magically transported to parking lots across the US by Santa's little elves, but I never realized what was actually involved.

What's with the Free Tree Baling? Why would anyone donate his time and machine like that? Sure as hell can't be nothing more than Christmas spirit (can it?).

26/11/11 9:12 AM  
Blogger nolocontendere said...

When I sold trees and people complained about the prices, I'd tell them it was because the insurance companies didn't like us climbing up 200 feet to cut off the tops.

It's insanely intense during harvest month, abi. Xmas tree work is hard work all year round, but there's good money if you can put up with it.
For instance I bought a humungous shoulder strapped Honda brushcutter that spun a carbide tipped 12'' blade and modified it to cut down the trees, and made $300 to $350 a day. Tree shearing was also lucrative but extremely taxing (just mentioned it in passing). I taught myself to use both arms so I could do more per day. A side benefit was that a few months in you'd have arms and shoulders that resembled the Incredible Hulk.

That particular baling machine is at a retail lot, making it easier for cash customers to transport their purchase home as part of the sale. But it's exactly what all outfits, big and small, use to ship the trees around the world.

26/11/11 1:13 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Cost of the War in Iraq
(JavaScript Error)
To see more details, click here.